I turned 55 last week. That’s old. Don’t blow smoke up my Depends by denying it. THIS guy (who rode out Hurricane Sandy above his marine-goods store) is 55.
So’s this guy.
And, so am I.
It was George Orwell who said that, by age 50, we all have the faces we deserve. Though, the face, of course, is barely the beginning. My hair is more grey than black. My chin is no longer solo. Thanks to an arthritic knee, my dogged physical challenges (walking the entire 35-mile shoreline of Manhattan, biking across Ireland, running more than 20 yards) are no longer possible. I know damned well that I am old. But, here’s the thing.
It’s traditional for we golden-agers, from late-night comics to your uncle Heshie, to complain about aging. Martin Amis, who is usually less trite in his wit, moans that “time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.” Nora Ephron made a late-in-life career of writing volumes of Oh-I’m-So-Old humor. (Admittedly, this one is pretty funny: “We all look good, except for our necks. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck”). Some of us turn ourselves into the butts of those jokes:
Of course, it’s almost as pedestrian for us “active adults” to swear that we embrace our advancing age; as Pat Benatar put it, to “wear the life I’ve lived.” Mitch Albom’s tedious takeaway, after weeks of interviews with his decripit and dying former professor, was “embrace aging.” Nonsense. It seems to me that there are some clear-eyed souls who accept aging rather than fighting it; but I’m not convinced that anyone embraces it (except authors in their 30’s who are embracing the craggy aphoristic wisdom of their former sociology professors) or, surely, cherishes it.
I don’t give much truck either to those who laugh off aging with “I can’t remember where my keys are” jokes or those who insist that they look forward to their old age. Perhaps some people find their aging funny, and perhaps some people are thrilled that they’re old, but I doubt it.
My advancing age is neither funny nor embraceable to me; but it sure is interesting.
55 feels like a watershed age to me. It feels like the beginning of the next phase of my life. I am, by nature or by lack-of-parental-nurture, a driven person. I don’t cherish success, but I fear failure, and I fight that fear by being an over-achiever. My teeth have been clenched and my stomach has been tightened for most of my 55 years. It’s not for nothing that the dice players call two fives a “hard ten.”
55, though, feels like the start of the Great Unclenching. Maybe, if I’ve stayed a stride ahead of failure for 55 years, I’m at the point where I can begin to coast a little. Old age, and especially age 60 and beyond, feels to me like the time when a person can exhale a bit, no longer need to feel constantly productive, no longer need to feel always masterful. Although 54 felt like middle age, for some reason 55 feels like the beginning of the slow relaxing into old age.
This watershed feeling at age 55 is more than just a coincidence of the base-10 Hindu-Arabic numbering system. Scientists have determined that 55 is the age when our bodies suddenly stop trying to fight the onset of decay: Beginning at age 55, we no longer repair our damaged DNA or fight off mutant cells. Even more evidence of this turning point can be found in David Shields’ lavishly-researched “autobiography of my body,” called “The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.”
Although that book assembles a torrent of facts, I left it with a single unforgettable realization: Like all other species and genera, we humans are reproduction machines. We are formed so as to create more humans, and we have no biological function beyond that. Not surprisingly, then, once our bodies pass the prime age for reproduction, they begin to deteriorate. It is only a quirk of medical science and our own vain love for existence that we live for decades after our biological function has passed. Our bodies, however, know that the Big Show is over, and methodically begin the decommissioning process. Not only culturally, but also biologically, we old folks are no longer relevant.
After all, it’s not as if we suddenly age because our bodies are plain worn out, like the balky parts of a jalopy. There is no mechanical reason for our skin to lose its elasticity, our fingernail growth to slow, and our ability to hear high frequencies to diminish….except that we are examples of planned obsolescence, which kicks in as soon as prime child-producing years are over.
I am only a week into 55, so most of the changes of old age are still before me. I don’t take any medications; I can walk, see, and hear well; I am no more forgetful and full of repeated anecdotes than I was a decade ago. So, I am fascinated with what the next decades will bring.
For now, I have two questions, and theoretical answers.
First: Why aren’t old folks bored silly?
My grandmother spent her last decades watching televised golf and bowling, as well as doing humdrum household tasks in her small Newark apartment and very little else. Yet, these things satisfied her. My mother, soon to be 83, can spin an entire day’s heated conversation out of the best way to drive to the drug store. From my experiences with them, my theory is that we are mercifully programmed such that our bandwidth grows more narrow when our lives grow more simple. That is, when we have less stimulation, because we have trouble walking, hearing, or carrying out complicated plans, we somehow become satisfied with that reduced stimulation. (This has always seemed to me to be similar to how younger men and women are attracted to partners of their own ages, when partners of that age had seemed unpalatably ancient only a few years earlier).
Second: Why aren’t old folks continually stoned?
I’m not much of a drinker, but it’s always occurred to me that the “golden years,” with few responsibilities and long stretches of time to fill, would scream out for intoxicants. After all, another group of people with few responsibilities and little to do — that is, Hollywood stars — seem to inhale drugs and booze during their off hours. Yet, in my mom’s retirement community, I see nary a glass of Chardonnay. My theory is that we are mercifully wired in a way that pumps up the dopamine or serotonin or endorphins as our bodies decline. This may also explain the film “Cocoon.”
So, now I am old. I’ve done my share of repopulating the species; I’ve gathered the usual Monopoly-game pieces; I get called “sir” more than “dude.” Ah, well. Here’s waiting for the serotonin to kick in.